Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ki Tissa –Sh’mot (Exodus) 30:11 - 34
"When you lift up ["ki tissa"] the head [singular] of the sons of Israel to be mustered, they shall each give the ransom of his soul to YHVH, in mustering them, and there shall not be a plague among them in mustering them" (Ex. 30:12, literal translation). Hundreds of years later, when King David made an attempt to conduct a census, YHVH reprimanded him heavily ("And Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel… And it was evil in the eyes of Elohim as to this thing," 1st Ch. 21:1,7). But whereas David counted (“mana” – meaning “apportion, divide, limit”) the people, YHVH asked Moshe to “lift up” the sons of Yisrael, since people are not to be numbered as a commodity. Rather, each individual was to be lifted up, as it were, to his Maker, even though oneness is emphasized too, by the usage of “head” singular (see above). In order for the census to be conducted properly, every one of those between age twenty and fifty had to offer a half shekel as a token, called a "ransom" ("kofer," of the root k.f.r. that is "kippur," meaning “propitiation, covering”), which was to symbolically represent him. This half shekel "atonement money" was offered to YHVH as a contribution ("trumah"), and was then given "for the service of the Tent of Meeting (ohel mo'ed), " for it to "be a memorial of the sons of Israel before YHVH to make atonement for yourselves" (30:16). The atonement (or ransom) money became a contribution to help the construction of the place where these sons of Yisrael will eventually be atoned for and remembered. Interestingly, later on in the Parasha, in 34:23, we read: “Three times in the year your men shall appear before YHVH.” In Hebrew “man” or “male” is “zachar” (literally, “one who remembered”), but here the word has been modified to “za’chur,” which means “one who is remembered.”
Going back to our census, we see how it enabled further national organization to take place, while offering an opportunity for contributions to be collected for the construction of Ohel Mo’ed (“tent of meeting,” as it is referred to in this Parasha). This pragmatism, wherein the nation's practical and spiritual needs were combined, illustrates the Torah’s intrinsic and typical economic proclivity for fusing various components and aspects of life into one act or event, as seen here.
More instructions for articles and utensils, which are to make up the future Tabernacle, follow. In 30:17-21, the brazen laver is mentioned, and then the instructions for making the incense and anointing oil (ref. vs. 23-25). "It shall not be poured on the flesh of man, and you shall not make any like it in its proportion; it is holy. It shall be holy to you. If a man prepares any like it, or who gives from it to a stranger, he shall be cut off from his people" (30:32, 33), is the injunction in connection with both (the oil and the incense, ref. also v. 37, 38). These words may alert us to the attempts, which are not uncommon in our day and age, of ‘passing on’ the ‘anointing’, ‘catching’ or even 'importing' it.
Now that all the instructions (with respect to the Tabernacle) are in place, it becomes necessary to select the artisans to execute the work. The men selected by YHVH are Betzal'el the son of Oori, the son of Choor from Yehuda, who was filled with YHVH's Spirit, and Ohali'av the son of Achi'se'mach from the tribe of Dan. Those two are endowed with all the wisdom, understanding, knowledge and skills that it would take "to make all that I have commanded…" (ref. 31:1-6). YHVH declares, "I have called by name Betzal'el" (31:2, emphasis added), and indeed the meaning of the name is "in the shadow of the Almighty" ("beh", is "in"; "tzel" is “shadow”, and "el" means "mighty").
Just before Moshe's return with the Torah instructions, inscribed on the tablets of the testimony "by the finger of Elohim" (31:18), attention is given once more to the Shabbat. It is to be "as a sign between Me and you, throughout your generations, that you may know that I am YHVH who sanctifies [separates/sets apart] you" (31:13). Shabbat is seen here as the seal for the "everlasting [or perpetual] covenant" (v. 16) that YHVH made with Yisrael, who, as a nation, is to testify to the fact that He "made heaven and earth in six days and in the seventh He ceased and was refreshed." These instructions are preceded by one little word, "ach" (v. 13), translated, "but," “surely,” or "as for you." However, in this context it appears to mean, "whatever else you do [keep My Sabbaths]!"
All seems to be in order now. YHVH hands Moshe the stone tablets He had written, and Moshe is about to descend and deliver the Divine message to the People.
Suddenly there is a shift of scene and time. At what point exactly was it that the people's restlessness and disenchantment with Moshe led them to put pressure on A'haron to ease off their frustration? The answer to that remains unknown, but what our text does inform us about, is the people's firm resolve to alleviate these frustrations. "And the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain. And the people gathered to Aaron. And they said to him, 'Rise up, make for us gods who may go before our face. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him'" (32:1).
Several key words in this text (verses 1-6), help in unraveling this scene as it unfolds. Moshe's delay here is "boshesh," its root being "bosh" (bet, vav, shin) whose primary meaning is “shame, disgrace, to cause shame and disgrace, or embarrassment (e.g. Gen. 2:25), withering, dryness and destruction.” This verb decodes the emotions and thoughts that were plaguing the anxious Israelites. It is not difficult to envision them expressing the following sentiments: “What embarrassment and shame is this man Moshe subjecting us to! His strange ways and disappearance will be our demise, and we will wither and be destroyed in this desert!” A large crowd gathers around A'haron, denoted by "(va)yika'hel," of the root k.h.l (kof, hey, lamed) which means “assembly or congregation.” Thus, the assembly of Yisrael congregates around the only person whom they deem able to execute the plan that they had already formulated. To the "elohim" which they demand that A'haron make for them, they refer in the plural (“make us gods, which shall go before us” 32:1), being in direct defiance of what they had heard just a little while earlier… "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Parashat Yitro, Ex. 20:3). With bitter sarcasm they refer to Moshe as "this man who brought us out of Egypt," while at the same time not only forgetting the miracles and wonders it took to extricate them out of the land of their affliction, but also avoiding any reference to YHVH Himself. "Seeing that Moshe had delayed" (32:1 italics added), they are now calling for visible gods which would "walk before their faces.” This is another contrary concept, as it is individuals, or the nation, that are to “walk before Elohim’s face,” and not the other way around.
In an attempt to placate the crowd, A'haron complies, instructing anyone wearing jewelry to "remove" their gold earrings, using, not coincidentally, the imperative form for "to tear off," which is “par'ku" (v. 2). The verb p.r.k (pey, resh, kof) also means “to part, to rip (Ps. 7:2), to fragment, or to tear” (I Kings 19:11; Ez. 19:12), thus all-too accurately describing the overall condition of those who were "tearing off" their jewels to make gods for themselves!
In the process (v. 4 of chapter 32) A'aron takes a stylus - che'ret (ch.r.t, chet, rehs, tet), which seems to share the root with one of the words for "magicians" (such as those who operated in Egypt, e.g. Ex.8:7, 18) - "chartumin"), making up for an intriguing connection (in light of the circumstances).
With this stylus A’haron formed - "(ve)yatzar" - the "molten calf" - "egel ma'seh'cha" (v. 4). "Formed" is of the root y.tz.r (yod, tzadi, resh) which goes back to "thought, imagination and contemplation" - "yetzer" - such as used in B’resheet (Genesis) 6:5, and 8:21 respectively: "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart"; "The imagination of the heart of man is evil from his youth." It is nothing less than "evil imagination" which yields the results of this sad episode. The calf, "egel," is rooted in a.g.l (ayin, gimmel, lamed), meaning, "round or roll," referring to a young calf as it rolls, bounds or gallops. This particular calf, though, was a "ma'seh'cha," that is a molten image. "Ma'seh'cha" is also a “covering” or a “veil,” such as the "veil shrouding" found in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 25:7, and is the translation for the alliteration "ma'seh'cha nesu'cha." Thus, whereas in Parashat Mishpatim we saw that Moshe was to place the Torah in front of YHVH's chosen Nation as a mirror, here the backsliding Israelites, who are so desperate to see with their eyes (as pointed out above), actually suffer a loss of sight, as they are blindfolded by a "ma'seh'cha" (a veil) of their own making. In 34:17, in the course of the renewal of the Covenant, it is necessary to remind them once again, “You shall make no molten gods – elohey ma’she’cha.”
Continuing in chapter 32: “…And they rose early on the morrow, and they offered burnt offerings and brought near peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (v. 6). The offense of the descendants of Yitz'chak (Isaac) climaxes when they act in total defiance to the severe warning, which was presented to them in Sh’mot (Exodus) 22:19: "One sacrificing to gods shall be destroyed" (and repeated in 34:14). The verb “play” is "(le)tza'chek" (of the root tz.ch.k, tzadi, chet, kof “to laugh"), and is used here, implying "making sport, toying with, mocking," or "conjugal caresses" - all of which speak of the lewd debauchery in which Yitzchak’s progeny was engaged.
YHVH discloses to the unsuspecting Moshe the gory details of what "your people whom you brought up out of Egypt" (literal translation, italics added) have done, and with that He (symbolically) charges him "to go… to descend" (32:7). The all-knowing Elohim, being aware that Moshe would beseech Him on behalf of this reproachable people, makes here a declaration (v. 10), allowing us a rare glimpse into what is otherwise an 'off limits' domain: "Leave Me alone (that My anger may glow against them, that I may consume them)." But Moshe's uninterrupted intercessory address (v. 11-13) does result in YHVH being "moved to pity concerning the evil which He had spoken to do to His people" (v. 14).
The language employed by verses 15 and 16 (still in 32) could not be more emphatic in recounting the preciousness of the Divinely written tablets: …"the two tablets of the testimony… tablets written on their two sides, on this and on that side they were written. And the tablets were the work of Elohim, and the writing was the writing of Elohim; it was engraved on the tablets." All this is in sharp contradiction to the horrendous sight awaiting Moshe at the foot of the Mountain.
After a sad confrontation with A'haron, during which the latter defends his position by making weak excuses, Moshe realizes that the People is "loosed, for Aaron had let it loose for a derision among their enemies" (v. 25). The words for "loose" used here stem from "para" (p.r.a. pey/fey, resh, ayin). As we observed already in Parashat Miketz (Gen. 41-44:17), the same consonants also appear in Par'oh's name. The question that arises here is whether the meaning of this root ("unruly," "disorder") had any bearing on the meaning of the title accorded to the Egyptian monarchs (although "Par'oh," as we noted there, does have its specific and separate meaning in the Ancient Egyptian tongue). This issue seems to be quite pertinent in this case, as the Hebrews were certainly manifesting a reversal to practices which they no doubt observed in their land of sojourning. Likewise, we have just seen a resemblance of the word denoting Egypt’s magicians to the tool A'haron used to make the calf.
The first six verses of chapter 33 describe a transitional phase, leading to the restitution of relationship between YHVH and His People. As part of the People's mourning and repentance, they remove the rest of their jewels (verse 6). Interestingly, the verb for removing the jewels is not the same as the one used above (32:2). Instead, there is the unusual usage of a word that in Shmot (Exodus) 12:36 was employed for "spoiling" (the Egyptians). The verb used here – va’yit’natzlu - shares its root (y.tz.l yod, tzadi, lamed) with the word for "deliver" (Ex. 3:8). Is this intended as a reminder, in the course of healing the breach in the relationship with the Almighty, of their miraculous deliverance from the enemy?
The rest of the Parasha deals with issues relating, not surprisingly in view of the recent events, to YHVH's presence, His reverence, His revelation to Moshe, and the renewal of the Covenant. In mentioning Moshe's writing of the "d'varim" – “words” on the new stone tablets, the figure "ten" is cited (34:28), unlike the first mention of these “words,” where no number was specified (Parashat Yitro, chapter 20). In this verse (28) Moshe is described as staying on the Mount, in the Presence of YHVH, for forty days during which time he wrote the tablets, abstaining from eating and drinking. In 24:10,11 of Parashat Mishpatim we encountered the elders and nobles of Yisrael ‘seeing’ the Elohim of Yisrael while “eating and drinking,” just prior to Moshe’s first ascent to the Mountain. These two scenes, against the backdrop of the two contrasting circumstances, form quite an object lesson; the one foreshadowing the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb” and the time when He will dwell with His own (Rev. 19:9; 21:3), while the other contains signs of the sorrow and alienation, which resulted from the sin committed by the Nation.
The variety of events crowding Parashat Ki Tissa, illustrate in microcosmic fashion, the topsy-turvy nature of Yisrael's relationship with her Elohim in years to come. Finally, having had the "maseh'cha" (which we discussed above) distort their spiritual sight; the Israelites cannot bear the glory which emanates from Moshe's face when he comes down from the Mountain. He is therefore obliged to cover his face with a veil ("mas'veh"). "But we [on the other hand] all with our face having been unveiled, having beheld the glory of the Lord in a mirror [the "Torah of liberty"], are being changed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord, the Spirit" (2nd Cor. 3:18 italics added). Truly something to be thankful for and not to be taken lightly!
On a different note, this week we are celebrating the festival of Purim, which is characterized by "concealment." Hence the proverbial "maseh'cha" ("molten image," but also a "mask" in Modern Hebrew) and "mas'veh" (the veil) are of even greater relevance to us at this time, especially here in Israel where Purim is celebrated by wearing costumes and masks.
Time to rejoice!